Josh Topolsky wants you to love The Outline…or hate it

August 8, 2016
Category: Tech & Tools

Josh Topolsky is riffing.

He’s just finished telling me that his new media startup, The Outline, isn’t interested in recapping the latest hit TV show or writing a “Five Things You Missed” story about the latest Avengers movie. So I asked: Well, what does The Outline’s take on the new Avengers movie look like?

“There are a bunch of ways to slice that story that I think are really interesting,” Topolsky said. “Specifically in America — but also around the world — we have this very strange infantilized worldview that’s connected to films like superhero movies. What relationship is there between Donald Trump and the Avengers? Is there a relationship at all? Is there something in the simplicity of message that is resonant with the populace right now?”

Topolsky was talking less than 48 hours after The Wall Street Journal broke the news of The Outline’s impending launch, which heralded the as-yet unlaunched site as an attempt to “fix digital media.” He’s got a $5 million bankroll from several investors, including RRE Ventures, the same firm that backed BuzzFeed and Business Insider.

But The Outline is different from those companies. Unlike Business Insider and BuzzFeed, which are out to conquer the web by generating massive scale, Topolsky wants to be intentionally small. He’d be happy with a monthly audience in the “double-digit millions,” a far cry from BuzzFeed, which earlier this year reported monthly content views in the billions.

It’s important to him to reach the right people, not necessarily the most people. For The Outline, these are urban sophisticates, the type of people who eat farm-to-table organic foods and back interesting projects on Kickstarter. He’s betting many of them are fed up with garbage content popping up on social media and are looking for an alternative.

“Talk to a 25-year-old and ask them if what they see in their feed every day is good,” Topolsky said. “I literally can’t remember the last time I asked someone that question and they said yes.”

The alternative? Serve up a limited number of quality articles (no quota, but he ballparks it at between 15 and 20 daily) focused on three topics: power, culture and the future.

Those are, admittedly, broad topics that are already very well canvassed: Fusion’s Real Future, New York’s Select All and Vox Media’s The Verge (which Topolsky co-founded), all examine the intersection of technology and culture. There’s no shortage of political news outlets, both digital and print, vying for eyeballs for their coverage of power. And culture is a broad topic that nearly every major American news organization has dipped its toe into.

But Topolsky says there’s room for The Outline to differentiate itself — if he can get the right people, with the right ideas, in the room. He wants to “tell a story no one has heard before,” and he cited several publications he thinks have been successful forebears.

“What does The New Yorker cover? New York magazine?” Topolsky asked. “What they do is say, ‘What can I say that’s interesting here? What story can I tell that no one has told before? Those are the areas of focus and interest. And that certainly does not mean to me and to any of the people I’m working with that you play the same game that everyone else is playing. And that, for us, is the challenge every day: How do you be interesting? How do you make them curious, how do you engage them?”

If that goal sounds far-fetched, Topolsky’s resume suggests he might be able to pull it off. In addition to founding The Verge, Topolsky has been a vice president at Vox Media chief and digital content officer at Bloomberg, a global behemoth. That’s given him an up-close view at what digital media organizations are doing right…and what they’re doing wrong.

“Advertising is the first battleground,” Topolsky said. “For all of the noise about what’s wrong with digital advertising, there are very few meaningful solutions or even attempts at solutions. And I think that we have some interesting ideas that begin to chip away at some of the problems and give both the audience and an advertiser a different and better way of doing things.”

What are those ideas? Writing in Nieman Lab today, Ken Doctor has a very good breakdown on The Outline’s emerging revenue strategy, which include native advertising, sponsorships, and, it appears, some display advertising.

And, although The Outline will be partnering with Code & Theory for some of its more ambitious projects, per Doctor, Topolsky wants to ensure The Outline has a firm technological footing of its own. He wants it to be a product company first and foremost, which means constantly updating its distribution and business strategies to keep up with a shifting marketplace.

And he wants people to react to the content, whether they love it or hate it.

“A lot of people are like, are you going to do a subscription model? Why not do micropayments? Why not do X?” Topolsky asked. “And it’s like, I want to build a product for people. I want them to be part of this thing. I want people to love to love it. Frankly, I want them to be angry about it if they don’t like it. I want them to feel something.”

Topolsky is excited (in his words, “psyched as fu*k”) for the pending launch and last week announced a handful of staffers that have already come aboard, including The Marshall Project’s Ivar Vong, BuzzFeed’s Aaron Edwards and Genius’ Leah Finnegan.

He’s shooting for a launch sometime this fall and predicts some kind of ramp-up, with off-platform debuts ahead of a full premiere. Expect to see a lot more riffing and experimentation in the coming months as The Outline starts to become a little more defined.

“At the end of the day, what I hope to build at the core of it is a brand that’s really meaningful, tells really meaningful stories to a specific audience,” Topolsky said.